When Trouser Press was starting out in the mid-’70s, our editorial focus on British music looked in several directions: the bands we loved from the ’60s, the forward-looking fringe of prog-rock, the well-hyped Next Big Things and, almost reluctantly, the American strains of rock, R&B and country being purveyed by a handful of bands working in and around London’s pubs. Until punk burst forth a few years later, the energy and excitement that seemed familiar and fun to us came from sweaty journeymen we’d read about in Melody Maker and ZigZag, unpretentious whammerjammers like Ducks Deluxe, Kilburn and the High Roads, the Count Bishops and Dr. Feelgood. Thankfully, their efforts had earned them record contracts and so those of on this side of the ocean could hear what they sounded like, even if there was little chance of seeing them in the flesh.
Brinsley Schwarz, the adult evolution of the chart-minded ’60s pop band Kippington Lodge, fought in those same trenches, but their inspiration and enthusiasms were less rugged and sweaty. Their aspirations leaned in another direction: they wanted to sound like the Band, mixing rustic Americana with some country and a pop sensibility. To that end, they boasted singer-songwriter-bassist Nick Lowe and guitarist-saxophonist-namesake Brinsley Schwarz as well as a solid drummer, able keyboardist and, after a bit, singer-guitarist Ian Gomm. The details of their story are thoroughly aired in Will Birch’s first-rate Nick Lowe biography, Cruel to Be Kind (Da Capo, 2019).
There aren’t many other bands named after a member who isn’t the clear frontperson. J. Geils comes first to mind….Manfred Mann…Zumpano… But when Kippington Lodge decided to reinvent themselves in 1969, that’s what they did. They became Brinsley Schwarz. On a recent Zoom call from the UK, the namesake explains, “We were supposed to have a vote. We were all supposed to meet up at Nick and keyboard player Bob [Andrews]’s flat. And we’d write our suggestions down on a bit of paper, which I dutifully did. When I got there, they said we don’t need to do that. We’ve decided. I said, ‘That’s awful! And what if I leave?’ They said ‘We don’t care, that’s what we’re calling it. It’s a great name.’ So that was that.”
And what about that great, and uncommon, name? “My father was from Holland. And my first name is from a town in England that had some significance to my parents. Thanks, dad.”
The Brinsleys were reportedly great live, but their albums veered all over the place, often in a mild-mannered country-rock direction, and could be hard to place. They had their moments, to be sure, including (but hardly limited to) the first rendition of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and his soulful heartbreaker “Don’t Lose Your Grip on Love.” Gomm came up with the snappy stepper “Hooked on Love.” And then there’s the one that got away: “Cruel to Be Kind,” a Lowe-Gomm number recorded for what would have been the Brinsleys’ final album — had it actually been released.
There’s a great story in Birch’s book about the Brinsleys lending their rehearsal space to The Band at one point. I’ll let the eyewitness tell it.
Before he co-founded Stiff Records with Jake Riviera (who looked after the Feelgoods on the road), Dave Robinson managed the Brinsleys. His liner notes in the 1978 posthumous retrospective Fifteen Thoughts of Brinsley Schwarz (its cherry red cover a daring and almost inconceivable replica of the export version of Five Articles by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung), explain how a brief and ill-advised 1970 dip into music biz hype — specifically, his fiasco of a plan to play the Fillmore East in New York before 150 legless British music journalists flown over on a mad lig — led the Brinsleys to become “determinedly anti-commercial,” which must have been a difficult stance for United Artists to indulge. He goes on to write that “their fundamental belief in the non-star approach…took them to the pubs.”
So while other acts were trying to graduate from the local scene to the major label ranks, the Brinsleys — fed up with their second-tier status as an opening act — did the exact opposite.
Brinsley picks up the narrative. “There were almost always record company people around looking for bands. It didn’t happen immediately. But [the pubs] were a place for anybody who was going to stand a chance of getting somewhere to play. That’s why we did it. We were in a position to play larger gigs, supporting bigger bands. But you get bored playing to an audience that has come specifically to watch [someone else]. And those people were not particularly interested in listening to us. So we actively looked for something else. We saw Eggs Over Easy [a forgettable New York country-rock band that had decamped to London in 1970 and inadvertently pioneered the pub rock movement] play in town, and immediately said, ‘Yeah, that’s what we want to do.’
“The difficult part was persuading these landlords to let us play for nothing. They didn’t get that at all: ‘You want to come and play for nothing, and I’ll make money out of it?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, and when you’ve made money out of it, that’s where you’ll be paying us to do it.'”
It was in the pubs of London and elsewhere that the Brinsleys refound their footing and, in the process, helped move the local music scene forward. Others joined in or were carried along. At the forefront, Dr. Feelgood turned those tiny stages into a launching pad for national treasurehood, while the younger Eddie and the Hot Rods took a crucial leap forward and made the scene safe for even younger, louder and snottier bands — i.e., punks.
Brinsley points out that, as a musical genre, pub rockers had very little in common. “The only thing that bound us all together was the fact that we played in pubs. We weren’t the same as any of the others. The other thing about pub rock bands was that there was not a lot of very long guitar solos. It was all about songs and getting excited.”
When the Brinsleys left the pubs behind, literally, calling it a career with a show at the Marquee in March 1975, Brinsley and Bob Andrews found some like-minded peers — guitarist Martin Belmont from Ducks Deluxe and a rhythm section — and kept playing. That fall, the band that would come to be known as the Rumour started to “fool around.”
“Towards the end of the year, Dave Robinson phoned me up and said, ‘I’m recording this singer-songwriter. I think you’d enjoy the record. You want to come along and join in? Martin’s doing it and Bob will be there,’ I said, Yeah, okay. That turned into Graham Parker and the Rumour.”
It’s difficult to explain how Parker fit into the evolution of British rock at the time. He was a fairly traditional singer-songwriter with a taste for American R&B and a bit of tightly wound swagger. You could have put him on a bill with Bruce Springsteen and everyone would have gone home happy. But because he was British at a time of great change in the nation’s music and fronted a lot of attitude, he got tagged with the “angry young man” label and seemed closer to the streets than the stadiums. He preceded Elvis Costello by a year, and was accepted into the mainstream record world just before Stiff launched, joining Chiswick and putting alternative labels on the map as a viable option for artists, offering a home to the first punks and just about every pub band worth recording.
“We did eight tours of the UK, three of the United States and made two albums in 1976. I think we had 11 days off, which I spent flat on my back watching TV and reading. And then we were back on the road again. So, for at least three years, Graham Parker and the Rumour and the people we played with were the only people that I listened to.”
While Lowe helped Robinson and Riviera put Stiff on the map as the label’s jack-of-all-trades genius, he found time to help out old friends on other projects. He produced Parker’s debut, Howlin’ Wind, and then had to be brought in to salvage the third after a bizarre studio catastrophe.
Brinsley tells the story. “We spent a long time rehearsing and recording Stick to Me [with producer Bob Potter]; that time was allotted in our schedule, with tours lined up afterwards. After we finished the recording and before we went away on tour, we went to a mixing session. I was standing by the Studer 24-track tape machine — these use two-inch tape — and I noticed a little but growing pile of brown dust by one of the tape heads. I interrupted the engineer to point this out. He turned around and said, ‘What is it, for god’s sake? Can’t have a minute’s peace in here!’ But he got up and looked and went, ‘Oh shit!’ The tape or the machine was faulty and the tape was slowly being worn away. The recordings were ruined.
“We had a tour lined up, with a week’s break after it, followed by more touring. So we played the first tour and then re-recorded the album during our week off, then went back on tour again. Nick Lowe produced the second set of recordings. If Nick hadn’t been the producer I doubt we’d have been able to do it in time, because his method of production was to say ‘great’ to everything you played. That got us through really quickly.
“We had been playing most of the album on tour so we set ourselves up in the studio to record all together as live as possible and recorded the whole thing in six days. I remember those six days were more relaxed and the recordings more live and together-feeling.”
In 1980, after releasing The Up Escalator, “It all stopped. Graham stopped. He had lots of very valid reasons for stopping and no idea how long he would be stopped for or what he would be doing, if anything, afterwards. So we just got on with being the Rumour” — who had done three albums on their own, scoring a hit in Holland with “Frozen Years” — “until we stopped. Everybody else found stuff to do but I never went after any work in particular, it would just suddenly turn up. So when it all stopped, I had nothing to do.”
But something suddenly turned up, out of the blue. “We had an American agent-cum-manager who looked after us in the States and he was moving from his very expensive plush uptown Manhattan office to a smaller, cheaper loft — just a dirty, ugly room with wood everywhere. He said, ‘I need to find someone to change this into a full office-studio with dropped ceilings and all that.’ I said, ‘I’ll come and do that.’ And so he flew me over there and I did all the electricity, dropped the ceilings, built the walls, ran everything everywhere, painted it.”
And then another bit of kismet. “Graham happened to be looking for a lead guitar player and couldn’t find one in New York. So Alan, the agent-manager, said, ‘Brinsley is in town,’ and Graham said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Brinsley would be perfect.’ And so I [played] with Graham for another six years.”
Around that time, Brinsley added another role to his career: he began repairing and customizing guitars and amplifiers. His return to music-making came via solo albums, the second of which — Tangled — was released this month by Fretsore, a rising London label. (Unexpected came out in 2016.)
In nine originals and one cover, Brinsley offers a handsome, reserved, sometimes solemn take on life, delivered with gentle resolve. Many of the resonant lyrics take a downbeat angle, but the album is no slog through unwavering misery. “You Drive Me to Drink” is angry, “Stranded” is sad, “Crazy World” is a pandemic elegy and “Storm in the Hills” addresses a whole gamut of unwelcome modern developments. But if the artist sounds at times dispirited, he balances that with tender loving in “All Day” (the intro played on ukulele) and “Unexpected.”
Brinsley admits, “I find it hard to actually sing anything happy,” yet the album is, in its own way, uplifting. The music, which the multi-instrumentalist crafted with only the aid of two drummers and co-producer, keyboard-and-string player James Hallawell, is eloquent and economical, punctuated by guitar solos that don’t call attention to themselves but are fully thought out and precisely played. The liberal use of vibrato, tremolo and reverb lend a vintage feel to the stately proceedings, but even when the tempo and energy level rev a bit, as on the bouncy “Storm in the Hills,” there’s little chance of disturbing the neighbors. The inclusion of Parker’s “Love Gets You Twisted” (from Squeezing Out Sparks) is both tributary and salutary, as is — albeit without acknowledgment — the Lowe-like alarm of “You Can’t Take It Back.”
A question that comes up a lot in the 21st century is why artists make records that no longer offer the prospect of significant returns. “This one’s cost me about 12 grand,” Brinsley says, “and I’d be lucky if I see that back. So why bother to do it? Because we like it. It’s fun for us and and we’re quite good at it as well.”